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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The FDD study of Palestinian Arab social media

I briefly mentioned a report by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies that analyzed Palestinian Arab social media (blogs, message boards, Twitter) to find current trends. Commenter "Elder of Lobby" pointed me to the actual study.

The authors acknowledge that online forums are not necessarily representative of what people really think. As with English-language Web 2.0 sites (and in real life,) the people who scream the loudest with the more extreme positions tend to get the most attention.

The survey did note that traditional polling is not any better - pointing out that the polls that the US relied on saying that Fatah would easily beat Hamas in the 2006 elections were way off, and suggesting that an analysis of social media could have headed off that mistake.

The report identifies three broad trends:
First, Palestinian social media is dominated by users who harbor radicalized perspectives. The landscape is not completely devoid of users with moderate to liberal views, but it is influenced heavily by political and theological radicals.
This is no different from any other social media, so it doesn't tell us anything new.
Second, there appears to be little cross-over between radical and liberal sites, indicating a significant lack of debate between radicalized users and those with non-violent ideologies.
This is also largely true in Western social media, although there are exceptions. Even where multiple viewpoints are seen, rarely will one find anyone convincing the other side of anything.

The third trend, however, I found most interesting:
Third, Palestinians who espouse moderate or liberal viewpoints online are often inclined to blog in English rather than Arabic. Indeed, there is no shortage of English-language blogs produced by Palestinians and other Arabs to address local and regional issues in general, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular.
That finding is important. It indicates that Palestinian Arab political moderates are not welcome to post their opinions in Arabic where (one presumes) the majority of the social web users congregate. Moderation is not rewarded in Arabic, but the English-language audience is much more inclined to identify with such thinking, meaning that an important potential source for dampening extremism in the PalArab media is missing.

Language is important. People who share a language naturally are less guarded in what they will write to their peers than they would be to outsiders. Absent peer pressure to the contrary, thsi extremism will tend to intensify. This would explain why extremists dominate in Arabic - there is no peer pressure within Arabic language posters to stand up and tell them that their ideas are wrong.

Newsweek, which just wrote an article mirroring the "Elders" saying that Hamas should come to the negotiating table and has moderated its positions, should read this report:

[T]he Palestinian social media environment gives no indication that Hamas is willing to seek peace with Israel. There were no scored posts on this topic on any of the pro-Hamas forums. Nor were there any posts attributed to pro-Hamas users on this topic on other web forums. From discussions about the flotilla violence in late May to the rumors of reinvigorated peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel during June and July, rejectionism was the dominant position among Hamas users. Accordingly, decision-makers weighing the benefits of engaging Hamas in talks should be wary of claims that the group has become more moderate and pragmatic, or that it privately wishes to negotiate peace with Israel and the United States.

The authors note the incongruity that I have mentioned a number of times of the disconnect between Fatah's official political positions and what its adherents say to each other.
Broadly speaking, most Fatah supporters embraced the notion that Israel was an enemy, rather than a peace partner.

In general, the study mirrors what I have seen from reading the Palestinian Arabic news media and comments for the past few years via Google Translate. for example:

Palestinian social media commentary on Israeli-Palestinian political reconciliation was overwhelmingly negative. Potentially positive diplomatic steps were often derided in the Palestinian online environment. Thus, despite Washington’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians—both through new Obama administration policies and online engagement with Palestinians through a State Department initiative to explain those policies—the online forums suggest that there is currently scant support for a new peace initiative.
I can see the study being accused of bias, as it does not explain well the scientific basis for its views. The description of the methodology is interesting but it doesn't translate to any real numbers or trends, and since the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is perceived as a right-wing group, its findings may be dismissed out of hand by those who need to read it most.

It would have been more effective if it showed more rigor in drawing the lines from the research to the analysis. And it would be a shame if it is not studied closely by the current US administration.